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Jakarta Blues

Many moons ago, at the height of rainy season, I left the office in the middle of a howling storm. The lashing rain was blown almost horizontally in the wind, and my umbrella, now turned inside-out, was practically useless. This was, I thought, almost like the typhoons I had grown up experiencing in Hong Kong. Much of the usual route home was covered with murky, ankle-deep water; in nine months of walking from work, I had never encountered this much flooding. Eventually I crossed over to the opposite side of the street, where the pavement was unfamiliar. But therein was my mistake. Before I knew it, my right leg had plunged into a large hole obscured by the swirling floodwaters, and I tumbled forward, palms creating a splash as they hit the underwater asphalt. Overhead, the sky glowed with lightning and the thunder felt dangerously close.

I don’t hate Jakarta, but I’ll admit there are aspects of living here that I find downright infuriating. It’s the fact that so many Indonesians, even educated white-collar workers, are unrepentant litterbugs: the product of a prevailing culture in which people assume that someone else will clean up after them. What also gets on my nerves is the fact that traffic rules here are merely suggestions: motorcyclists are often seen barreling down the wrong side of a major avenue, and have no qualms scattering pedestrians on the pavement. It annoys me that a zebra crossing means nothing to Indonesian drivers, and that sometimes the mere act of walking home feels like going on a suicide mission. Especially so when you’re confronted with six lanes of heavy traffic, speeding motorcycles that swerve only at the last moment, and no traffic lights or footbridges to circumvent a potentially dangerous situation. When it rains, the unpaved road medians turn to mud.

And yet, in spite of the traffic jams, the aggressive and inconsiderate drivers, the pollution, the flooding, and the occasional large-scale demonstration by Islamic hardliners – many of whom are bussed in from outside the city – I still love Jakarta as much as I did when I moved here last May. I love the genuine cheerfulness and sincerity I encounter on a daily basis, the wonderful conversations with taxi drivers on the drive to and from the airport, and the cosmopolitanism of Jakarta. I love the fact that I can feed my nostalgia for Spain with a glass of tinto de verano (red wine mixed with lemonade) and prawn-stuffed piquillo peppers at a cozy restaurant helmed by a Basque chef, or sip on Japanese-Peruvian cocktails while watching the city lights flicker on from an alfresco terrace atop the highest skyscraper in town.

A cheery blue bajaj: gas-powered auto rickshaws imported from India

Modernist architecture in the central district of Cikini

Street art in Cikini’s Taman Ismail Marzuki, a cultural complex

A quiet morning outside the Jakarta Theater at Taman Ismail Marzuki

Taman Patung Diponegoro, a small park in the leafy neighborhood of Menteng

Cut Meutia Mosque, converted from a Dutch colonial office building

Jakarta is a place where people reinvent themselves, much like New York and Hong Kong. This teeming megalopolis, 10 million strong, is a magnet of creativity, driven by the entrepreneurial spirit common to so many Indonesians. I’ve found that people here have an innate knack for problem solving, a natural response to life in a country where things don’t run like clockwork and the infrastructure is woefully inadequate. One example is the startup company Go-Jek, which has revolutionized the way motorcycle taxis work in cities across Indonesia, delivering food, documents and gifts, and even rolling out a mobile makeup and housecleaning service.

But there’s also a side to the city that is unmistakably down-to-earth. Beyond the gleaming skyscrapers and shopping malls, Jakarta remains a sprawling patchwork of low-rise villages where you might even catch sight of goats or wandering Muscovy ducks. I cannot imagine this place without the ramshackle markets, the call to prayer emanating from the neighborhood mosques, the bursts of (illegal) fireworks on festive nights, or the tantalizing street food found on most corners. I think of the gerobak food cart that Bama and I frequent on weekends for a hearty bowl of chicken congee with all the trimmings – peanuts, shrimp crackers, and slices of cakwe (Chinese cruller) – for less than one U.S. dollar. The narrow road behind my office is lined with informal stalls selling all kinds of deep-fried snacks, and, as I found out one night while working overtime, an indulgent meal of coconut rice served with chili sambal and garlicky, turmeric-scented fried chicken.

Another reason I love Jakarta is the deep sense of belonging that comes with being attuned to the national psyche (Bama tells me I have a very Indonesian concept of time) and the ability to blend in perfectly as a Chinese-Indonesian, one that will only be reinforced as my Indonesian language skills improve with time. Just as important are the friends I’ve made here – many of them through Bama – and my easygoing coworkers who have managed to stay sane despite the mercurial nature of our ill-tempered babe (that’s “boss” in Jakarta’s homegrown Betawi language). They’ve taught me to find humor in even the most stressful situation.

That stormy night, in the yellow-brown floodwaters halfway between the office and my apartment, I received my Jakarta baptism. Only much later did I understand the valuable lesson it had for me: that resilience was not so much a choice but an instinct. Soaked to the bone, I reacted the only way I knew how – by picking myself up and walking on through the flooded streets. In this sopping wet state, I still bought dinner from the usual bakery, while bearing a fresh wound below the knee where the skin had scraped against the edge of that hole. When it healed I was left with a scar resembling a tongue of fire. In that fierce torrential rainstorm I was born again, and given a mark to remind me that I was no longer the spoilt Hong Konger, but a hardier, more tolerant and grateful person – and well on my way to becoming Jakartan. 

Immanuel Church, built from 1835 to 1839 in the Indies Empire Style

Indonesia’s National Gallery, just down the street

Hotel Borobudur from Lapangan Banteng park; the nearby Indonesian Ministry of Finance

A “gerobak” food cart selling sate beside Lapangan Banteng

The former central post office; Jakarta Cathedral and Lapangan Banteng by sunset

The 1830s Pancasila Building, now part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Jakarta Art Building, a concert hall erected in 1821 as the Schouwburg Weltevreden

Stasiun Gambir – Jakarta’s central intercity train station – and the National Monument at dusk

An accidental artistic shot, taken outside the National Gallery

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. lol, (((jakarta baptism))). Who’s your baptist name then? Mine is Mamat, my friends of Jakarta used to call me that.
    Indeed, Jakarta has many faces. It can be frustrating living inside this big durian, but a Jakartans genuine smile and food bring the mood back.

    Anyway, James. I’m participating to a blog contest held by Skyscanner. If you don’t mind, please leave a comment on my newest post. Thanks a bunch 🙂

    September 30, 2017
    • Yes Nugie, there is a definite element of frustration that comes with living here, but you’re right – Jakarta is a city of many worlds. I think there will always be something new to discover and I’m amazed that people can still be so friendly in such a crowded place with 10 million souls.

      October 1, 2017
  2. Unfortunately, that attitude from those who litter, is everywhere. I for one, am guilty of picking up after them on my walks, especially if I see plastic, because I worry it might eventually reach our oceans.

    September 30, 2017
    • I’ve done that before too, Mallee… most recently at a grand 15th-century temple in the East Javan countryside. I don’t understand how anyone can have the ignorance or the gall to literally trash places of outstanding natural beauty and historic sites. You wouldn’t believe what I saw there – aside from candy wrappers, plastic bottles and used tissues, someone had even left a pair of underpants in the grass!

      October 1, 2017
  3. Great post James. It sounds as if you’ve been baptised by Jakarta, in a good way, even if it did involve a rain storm and a hidden hole. What an adventure it must be to not just visit a foreign city, but to go live there. I think being changed by such a circumstance is unavoidable. As for the garbage and the traffic – both sound just like India – and if I lived there I’d have trouble dealing with it too.
    Alison

    October 1, 2017
    • Absolutely, Alison – my perspective has shifted on so many things. I was just reading your latest post and can empathize with a lot of what you and Don wrote. Living in a huge developing city like Jakarta has taught me to be more content: I’m very thankful to have a roof over my head (with air conditioning!), enough food to eat, a good job that allows me to travel, and the physical mobility that we can often take for granted in our younger years.

      October 1, 2017
  4. I wonder if years from now Jakarta will grow on you, just like it did with me, especially after traveling to other cities both in Indonesia and abroad. This grimy city certainly has an appeal which can be uncovered only after scratching its rough surface. This reminds me that I still need to take you to many other parts of Jakarta so you’ll get to know her better, and see if you’ll end up loving her.

    October 1, 2017
    • I’d argue that Jakarta has already grown on me, even if I complain regularly about the sorry state of sidewalks, the motorcyclists, the littering etc. There’s no doubt about its charms – I would love to explore more of its hidden artistic side and go on a culinary escapade to the neighborhoods in the north and east.

      October 1, 2017
  5. Great opening shot James. I think every city has pieces of it that can feel so depressing…one thing that drives me up the wall in China is what you mention about litterbugs. It kills me to see it, especially when a trash can is just a few feet away. 🙂 But then you get the pieces of magic that make you feel like you belong, the beauty of the city ~ the storm being one of many key moments I am sure. Great post.

    October 1, 2017
    • Thank you, Randall. 🙂 Living in Jakarta is never boring, that’s for sure – every day is an adventure! I guess the litter problem is a common attribute in most developing countries, though one would hope that this mindset can change with greater awareness and education.

      October 1, 2017
  6. What a beautiful paean to your new(ish) city, James. I could feel your affection for Jakarta even before you got to the good parts! Perhaps it is the imperfections that make us appreciate places more, highlighting the contrast between the daily annoyances and the deeper beauty.

    October 2, 2017
    • Much appreciated, Lex! You are right – if everything runs like clockwork it becomes very easy to take your surrounding environment for granted. I know I did back when I lived in Hong Kong. Coming from a city as developed as that, you need a certain amount of madness to move to Jakarta voluntarily… but it is really the people that make a place, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have friends like Bama here.

      October 21, 2017
  7. I just dived into your amazing pictures …

    October 4, 2017
    • Thanks for dropping by!

      October 21, 2017
  8. Bangkok has terrible traffic, but there are lots of pedestrian bridges and people generally stop at stop lights so getting around on foot isn’t too bad. What you describe sounds really dangerous and terrible!

    You say it is a city where people reinvent themselves, and that makes sense. I am assuming you mean Indonesians who have come from all over the archipelago to start a new life. Being the capital of such a diverse and immense country, I can only imagine the array of foods, languages and customs you have there.

    October 8, 2017
    • Oh, I think Bangkok does better than Jakarta on that front – in my opinion this city needs a lot more pedestrian bridges. And at least Bangkok has the MRT and Skytrain!

      Bingo – that’s exactly what I meant about Indonesians coming in from all over the country. Bama was telling me that after the end of Ramadan this year, Jakarta saw an influx of 68,000 new arrivals. Most of those came with their friends and family who had already established themselves with small businesses and the like.

      October 21, 2017
  9. Your beautiful photos give a good idea of what parts of Jakarta look like, but your wonderful descriptions show us the soul of the city and people. Many things you say also apply to Mexico (entrepreneurial spirit, crazy drivers, food carts, warm and smiling people, chasms in the sidewalks, fireworks day and night…) and are the reasons we love spending half of our lives there. We are returning to Oaxaca in two weeks, and yesterday we talked about how our lives there have evolved year after year, every season offering new challenges!
    Thanks for a great post!

    October 10, 2017
    • You’re welcome, Marilyn – and thank you for sharing your thoughts! I had no idea Mexico and Indonesia were so similar in those respects. Bama and I are planning to go in a few years’ time (I have always dreamed of seeing those Mayan pyramids), and from what you wrote, it sounds like both of us will feel right at home there!

      October 21, 2017
  10. Your love for Jakarta shines through your frustrations. Your opening lines felt like you were describing Chennai in the monsoons. I cannot imagine anywhere being worse. It took a while for us to adapt to the challenges of life in a big Indian city after the pristine conditions we lived in on the hills. But our resilience kicked in and we manage, and like you, are grateful for the privileges we enjoy. I do often dream of migrating to a pretty little village in Provence, but am convinced I will miss the sounds and the smells 🙂

    Beautiful photos James, and especially beautiful writing.

    October 14, 2017
    • Thank you so much, Madhu. 🙂

      I suppose Jakarta and Chennai have plenty of common ground – though we don’t have a beach and breezy promenade at such a scale, nor the lovely Indo-Saracenic colonial buildings. At the heart of it I think I too am a city person, and I find myself more appreciative of Jakarta after spending time in smaller and less cosmopolitan cities elsewhere on Java!

      October 21, 2017

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